USAF Century Series Fighter Jets: F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105 and F-106
What is the Century Series?
The Century Series fighters are a group of 6 US production fighter jets that were numbered F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105 and F-106. Although these were considered "2nd Generation" fighters, sharing common technology, the basis for this club was actually the "hundreds" numbering. With that said, the 2nd generation was not limited to just the Century Series aircraft.
The 2nd Generation generally spans an era from the mid-1950's to the mid-1960's that military fighter jets made a leap in technical advancements including engine design, aerodynamics, metallurgy, electronics and weapons systems. Although there is not a specific outline, 2nd generation aircraft generally could maintain speeds over Mach 1 in level flight. Swept wings became the norm and delta wings came into play. "Coke bottle" shaped Area Rule fuselages reduced drag. Traditional guns became uncommon and were replaced by air-to-air missiles, some with nuclear tips.
With the onset of the Cold War, there was a paradigm shift with the roles of American military aircraft. Fighters of this era were classified as Interceptors or Fighter/Bombers. Interceptors were designed to knock out an invading Soviet bomber fleet with their attributes being high altitude and speed, radar and missiles. Fighter/bombers were designed for air superiority and/or fast low level "dash" for ground attack with various bombs and air-to-ground missiles. At times, one basic model airframe could assume different roles based on how it was outfitted. These variations were identified with a letter suffix on the model number.
North American F-100 Super Sabre
The "Hun" was developed by North American Aviation as a higher performance replacement of the legendary F-86. It started as a development of the F-86, but after an extensive makeover, it was reborn as the F-100. Entering service in 1954, the 860 MPH Super Sabre's initial role was as a day fighter (F-100A) however the USAF Tactical Air Command required a fighter/bomber which was the "C" and improved "D." There was a two seat "F" variation as well. The Huns had a very high loss rate in its service life: 889 aircraft and 324 pilots. They went through numerous modification programs over the years to address these problems, and the fleet was even temporarily grounded early in its career.
The Super Sabre was not a failure though and made quite a few notable achievements. It was the first supersonic aircraft in the Air Force's inventory. Powered by the Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet engine, the Hun set the first supersonic world speed record in 1955 and won the prestigious Bendix Trophy that same year. It saw extensive service in Vietnam, with much of its success with Air National Guard units. It was the Air Force's first combat aircraft to enter the war, first to engage in aerial combat and the longest serving combat aircraft there, having flown over 360,000 combat sorties. The USAF Thunderbirds used the F-100 from 1956 to 1963 and again from 1964 to 1968 after briefly using the F-105. In 1971, the Hun was retired from the Air Force and used in Air National Guard units until 1979. Many retired Super Sabres were converted to target drones after their retirement.
McDonnell F-101 Voodoo
The second jet in the Century Series is the wicked looking McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. In the late 1940s, McDonnell Aircraft developed the XF-88 Voodoo, a twin-engine Penetration Fighter which is a long-range bomber escort. After 2 prototypes, the basic design was enlarged, given a pair of the more powerful Pratt & Whitney J57 engines and the F-101 was born. With the end of the Korean War and the Cold War building steam, the military's need shifted from penetration fighters to fighter/bombers. The Tactical Air Command took interest in a fighter/bomber version and the F-101A was developed. An improved F-101C was developed to address some structural deficiencies. There were various reconnaissance configurations that resulted in the RF-101(A, C or H).
The Air Force awarded Convair the contract to build the supersonic "1954 Interceptor" which was the F-102, however it did not enter production until 1956. In order to fulfill this role in the interim, the F-101B was developed serving in the USAF Air Defense Command. The cockpit was reconfigured for 2 crewmembers and the weapons system was configured for the Hughes MG-13 fire control radar and Falcon air-to-air missiles. It also received a more powerful version of the J57 engines. There were actually more B models produced than the A and C models. A handful of reconnaissance variations (RF-101B) were used briefly in the early 1970s.
Affectionately called the "One-O-Wonder," the Voodoo set a world speed record of 1,207 MPH in 1957. The Royal Canadian Air Force used an all-weather interceptor variation (CF-101) from 1961 until 1984. Perhaps the Voodoo's most important role was its reconnaissance work. RF-101s flew missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and saw extensive service in the Vietnam War with its speed being an advantage early on. The F-101 served in the Air Force until 1972 and with Air National Guard units until 1982. The McDonnell bloodline can be seen with similarities with the F-101 and the later F-4 Phantom II.
Convair F-102 Delta Dagger
In the late 1940s, The US Air Force asked for an all new interceptor that would be designed around a new weapons system. In a separate competition, Hughes Aircraft won the contract to produce the MA-1 fire control system. Convair subsequently won the contract for their design with production models using the MA-3 and later MA-10 systems. With design elements of the XF-92, the F-102 Delta Dagger was the US's first supersonic interceptor and first delta wing fighter. With an internal weapons bay, it was also the first to have an all missile weapons system. Initially, the plane could not achieve Mach 1. Along with other tweaks and airframe lightening, the fuselage was redesigned with "area ruling" which is essentially a Coke bottle shape that reduces trans-sonic drag. The F-102 was the first with area ruling. With an afterburning Pratt & Whitney J57 engine, the "Deuce" could achieve Mach 1.25 or around 825 MPH.
Entering service in 1956, the F-102 was an important staple for the Air Force through the mid-1960's. Its primary role was to "intercept" an invasion of Soviet bombers. The Deuce served in Vietnam as a bomber escort and flew patrol runs. The fleet later served in Air National Guard units until 1976. After retirement, many were converted to target drones. As all of the "Century Series" fighters, the F-102 was an important plane of the Cold War era.
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
The "missile with a man in it," formally known as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was the first combat aircraft that could maintain level Mach 2 flight. The Starfighter's reputation precedes itself and its blistering performance is still impressive by today's standards. The Starfighter was designed by Lockheed chief engineer, Kelly johnson, and his infamous Skunk Works. After getting feedback from Korean War veteran fighter pilots, Johnson settled on the simple but very powerful design. The Air Force took interest and the F-104 entered service in 1958.
The F-104 differed from its contemporaries in that it did not have a swept wing or delta wing designed. The wings were very short and thin trapezoidal units designed for high-speed performance while sacrificing low-speed maneuvering and needing a large turning radius. The leading edges of the wings were razor thin and posed a hazard to ground crews. Powered by the mighty General Electric J79, the Starfighter set a world speed record in 1958 at 1,408 MPH. In 1959 it set an altitude record of 103,395 feet. It's advertised climb rate was 48,000 feet per minute and it was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous speed, altitude and time to climb records. Aside from its reputation for speed, it was also well known as a notorious widow maker. The F-104 was challenging to fly and had the worst safety record of this group.
Although the Starfighter could be equipped either as a tactical fighter or as an interceptor, it wasn't exactly best suited for either role due to its limited range and armament. The plane did have some limited service in the Vietnam War but its limitations did not make it a favorite with the Air Force. It also served in Canada, Pakistan, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Japan. Its service with the Luftwaffe proved to be very controversial because of the safety concerns however Italy was very fond of the F-104, where it remained in service until 2004. The USAF retired the Starfighter in 1969 and it served with the Air National Guard until 1975.
The F-104 Starfighter will always best remembered for its stunning performance which can still be appreciated today by the Starfighters flight demonstration team. The team uses 3 former Canadian CF-104s in a high-speed demonstration at different airshows. Fans will also appreciate the Starfighter's characteristic engine intake "whoop" on the ground and its screech as it flies by. There simply isn't anything else like it.
Republic F-105 Thunderchief
The Republic F-105 Thunderchief was initially an internal project at Republic Aviation to replace the RF-84F Thunderflash. With the Cold War looming, Republic decided on a large supersonic single engine fighter/bomber that could penetrate the Soviet Union, make a high-speed low-level dash and deliver a single nuclear weapon. The end result was a very large plane that could exceed Mach 2 at high altitude, have a long range, heavy payload and good low-level high-speed characteristics.
The F-105 was actually the largest single-engine fighter ever used by the USAF. It could carry up to 14,000 pounds of ordnance which is more than what the WWII B-17 could carry. Powered by the potent Pratt & Whitney J75 afterburning turbojet, the big Thunderchief could achieve Mach 2.15 or over 1,370 MPH. It won the prestigious Bendix trophy in 1959.
Early on the F-105 encountered teething problems and with the F-4 Phantom II coming into play, orders were reduced. Only 833 were built. The "Thud" actually became a workhorse in the early years of the Vietnam War. The big fighter/bomber could carry twice the payload further and faster than the F-100. Almost half of the fleet was lost during the Vietnam war, but in all fairness, the Thud's missions were often the first in and last out of very heavily protected territory. One such place being Thud Ridge, a mountain near Hanoi.
In 1966, two seat F-105s were converted to operate in the Wild Weasel role replacing the F-100 as the Thuds were better suited for this type of operation. Aircraft were equipped with SEAD or Suppression of Enemy Defense systems, and the 2nd crewman was an Electronic Warfare Officer. The bottom line was getting in and knocking out Surface-to-Air missiles and their radar systems to clear the way for other aircraft. The F-105Ds were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1970, but the Wild Weasels remained for the duration of the war. The fleet was quickly retired following the war; however, some remained with Air National Guard until through 1984. Two Wild Weasel pilots were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.
Convair F-106 Delta Dart
Originally designated the F-102B, the sharp looking F-106 Delta Dart was actually an evolution of the F-102. The engine intakes were redesigned and the delta wing and fuselage were given a makeover to clean things up. The redesign was extensive enough to constitute the new designation. The "Six" was powered by the mighty Pratt & Whitney J75 engine allowing it to exceed Mach 2.3 or around 1,525 MPH, with some rumors of Mach 2.5. In fact, the F-106 set a world speed record in 1959 at 1,525 MPH.
Entering service in 1959, the Six continued the F-102's role and served as the US's primary all-weather interceptor against Soviet bomber attacks; however, it did not serve in Southeast Asia. Around 1981, the F-15 began replacing the Sixes and they were moved to Air National Guard units until 1988. Many of these aircraft met their fate as target drones as did the F-102. The F-106 Delta Dagger was the last dedicated interceptor of the US Air Force as their needs changed with the end of the Cold War.
There were three other designs with "Century" numbering, but it has been debated whether they were part of the club or not. None of these aircraft made production. The Republic XF-103 Thunderwarrior was only a concept. There were 3 North American XF-107 (pictured) prototypes built which was based on the F-100. The North American XF-108 Rapier never got past the mock-up stage.